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March 30, 2006

Central Asia Conference

Given how much I'm reading about Central Asia these days, it seems perverse not to write anything about it

UNDP has released a "Central Asia Human Development Report" (which, typically, I'm going to link to instead of reading). Both registan and New Eurasia report from the launch party. Despite a couple of references to the "new silk road" and the "new great game", it sounds like an interesting day. One academic talked about the lack of interest in Central Asia from everyone except China. China is naturally enough after Central Asia's oil, but I'm surprised nobody else is. He also commented:

Trade between Central Asian countries...is not and will not be a significant engine of development

I'm not saying he's wrong, but I'd be interested to see the basis for that reasoning. Martha Brill Olcett responded with:

Central Asia certainly needs the great markets more than the great markets need Central Asia as a transit route

Finally, one speaker talked about the emergence of:

a transnational democratic mobilization connected by technology

And it is exciting to hear about groups like this, because we can empathise, and because it justifies the time we spend behind computers rather than mobilizing on the streets or manning soup kitchens. Again, I'd like to know the figures behind this mobilization before I jump up and down squealing.

Time to read the report now, I guess.

March 29, 2006

Czech Republic

Next stop is a country I can't help thinking of as Czechoslovakia - and yes, I understand I deserve a slap for that.

The blogs and the wires are talking about floods, floods and more floods. No doubt if Prague floods again we'll see it on British TV. There's plenty about bird flu as well; again something that gets international attention wherever it happens. News I would otherwise have missed is the legalization of same-sex marriages

There are a few English-language Czech blogs around, mostly personal diaries of Prague residents - with all the holiday snaps and personal trivia that implies. Gazing into the Abyss at least has a useful list of East European blogs, categorised by country.

This blog is apparently part of a Prague city-guide website. It has frequent news updates, and this charming excursion into exports of Czech children's TV. Cartoon characters "Pat and Mat" have gained htemselves fansites in Switzerland and Japan

Hmm....that country turned out a lot less interesting than Mongolia and South Korea, but nonetheless I think now is a good time to move my spodding somewhere else. Who knows, maybe I'll return to stories from Prague some other day.

South Korea

Next stop, South Korea. An easier one this, because there's so much going on in the country, and in many ways they're way ahead of us.

Famously, there is OhmyNews, which got the attention of the net pundits a couple of years ago and sparked the craze for 'Citizen Journalism'.

Then there's gaming - the world of Korean MMORPGs is so far ahead of ours that it's embarassing. A top player like Lee Yunyeol can earn $200,000 a year, and is on television daily. Gaming/Internet cafes called "PC Bangs" are gradually being replaced by playing at home over a broadband connection, and so the national addiction continues to grow.

South Korean pop culture is taking over East Asia, in a trend given the moniker 'Hallyu', or 'Korean Wave'. The anti-Hallyu backlash in Taiwan and Japan has made governments there consider restricting Korean-origin broadcasts on national television, and some have even demanded that Korean television broadcast programs from other countries. Currently trendy Korean exports include the film Oldboy and the singer Rain (Ji-Hoon Jung. But I wonder if the whole 'Korean Wave' is a storm in a teacup; in 2004 the revenues from foreign sales of Korean TV were only $71.5m

Global Voices doesn't cover Korea as well as I'd expected, but it does at least point to Asian pages, the diary of a foreign worker in South Korea.

Unlike with Mongolia, this has been all pop-culture and no politics. Korea is important enough that we get to hear about the bigger political stories anyway. Recently, the news has been how the Prime minister forced to resign because he was playing golf rather than dealing with a rail strike. He's been replaced by South Korea's first female Prime Minister. And we all heard about the cloning scandal, because that had sex and science and scandal, all rolled up together.

So, that's enough of Korea. On to the next country...somewhere East European this time, I think.


Let's start with one of those proverbially obscure, remote countries: Mongolia.

Did you notice the political crisis there earlier this month? No, neither did I. The BBC's narrative is: Prime Minister starts anti-corruption drive. The main party, the MPRP, pulls out of his government. There are protests in favour of the Prime Minister and his party. By the time the dust settles, we've all lost interest.

For general political commentary, Nathan at Registan has been churning out Mongolia posts, and his del.icio.us linklist points to some of the more interesting news coverage of Mongolia. East Asia Watch has some posts about Mongolia, and Shards of Mongolia has a lot more.

At NewEurasia, a Mongolia blog got going in the past few days, and it's going through the initial posting-splurge of any new blog. The author has the advantage of living in Mongolia, and he's coming up with some interesting things.

Mongolia's only non-government news TV station, Eagle TV, is expanding broadcasting to 16 hours a day. The man behind Eagle TV, Tom Terry, has his own blog. From that site, it looks like Eagle TV has a strong Christian slant, as Terry tries to bring to Mongolia "Faith and Freedom". In his book of the same title he argues, according to one Amazon reviewer, that "(Christian) faith and human freedom are so inextricably connected that no culture can for long have one without the other". Well, I'd rather have missionary TV than no non-government media, and at least there are rumours of a second news station starting up in competition. Multiple news stations in a country with a population under 3 million isn't bad!

On more cultural topics, he talks about attempts to reintroduce the traditional Mongolian script, and about the preservation of Buddhist artfacts.

The Mongolian Matters blog has a series of posts on th idolisation of Genghis Khan: a Japanese film, Ulan Bator's airport being renamed Chinggis Khaan. Plans are even afoot to create a 40-metre statue of Genghis Khan on horseback, with a golden whip.

Places to look for more: global voices links to the blogs, flickr collects pretty pictures. There is a Mongolian State News Agency. Most of the other Mongolian news websites just reprint stories from the international press. The UB Post seems has substantially more original content.

March 28, 2006

A plan

I'm reading far too much in English, and far far too much of that is the standard boingboing/slashdot/oreilly/bbc stuff. It's interesting, but each day it's the same few dozen pages as every other geek in the western world is poring over. That needs to change, or I'm going to end up with the same stunted, arrogant, inane perspective as everybody else on teh interweb.

So now I'm throwing my cap over the wall. I'm going to spend tomorrow cruising round the web, one country at a time. I'm going to look for the funky weird shit that would be slashdotted to hell if it was in English, and I'm going to blog about it. Who knows, I might even learn something.

Before that I intend to spend tonight dancing, drinking, and chatting entirely in English with the assorted goths of Cambridge. I may even find it in my heart to say some nice things about the Christians, who are currently being bullied by the rest of the goths in a disturbingly playground style.

March 20, 2006

Hair of the buddha

Notwithstanding my occasional rants about museums, they can sometimes be soul-expanding places to spend time in - often despite strenuous efforts by the curators.

That's certainly true of the Indian section of the British Museum, which I recently visited for the first time in 5 years. The labels are tiny, uninformative and misleading, and try very hard to turn the whole exhibit into a tedious catalogue.

But then I look at the exhibits themselves, and given the right conditions I'll find a state of trance-like wonder at the beautiness and craziness of it all. It helps that several of them are famous enough that I've seen them on slides and book covers in the past, and that such skill has gone into making them.

What really excites me, though, is the way that iconography grows out of the intellectual history of religions. So, for example, the BM had several statues of the Buddha from, iirc, the 17th century. The head of each Buddha would have a pair of massive, incomprehensible growths that looked like medieval weaponry. The museum doesn't seem to have any pictures online, but here is a much less elaborate example from elsewhere.

Helpful as ever, the label describes this hair-growth as 'jata', and leaves it at that. What it doesn't explain is that jata originally meant matted, tangled hair, and that it was one of the signs that an ascetic had abandoned mundane life. Leave your family, go into the forest, and let your hair grow into a gruesome mess. As usual, the poets get overexcited about the nastiness of it all. In the harsha-carita a sage angrily shakes his head, and:

in all ten directions he scattered splendid red light from the entangled jata, which were flying outwards as the knot of his hair-tie was loosened by the shaking of his head in rage

And then, somehow, this turns into the regal costume of a dignified buddha.

[as usual when I get excited by something, it turns out very hard to explain afterwards, when you've forgotten all the spurious but fascinating connections between everything. Meh!]

March 15, 2006

There's recently been much debate when US/UK forces will leave Iraq.

As Britain reduces troop levels by 10%, Bush has been talkingabout

"the goal of having the Iraqis control more territory than the coalition by the end of 2006"

Regarding Britain, the Telegraph has two articles - one saying all British soldiers will be out of Iraq in one year, the other backpedalling to a figure of two years.

And the parade of politicians pushing one timetable or another continues - Karl Rove restating that "the administration will not pull American troops out of Iraq until victory is won". Senator Biden wanting them out after the summer

This debate isn't going to stop, but there isn't much to be gained from following every twist and turn.

But if ground troops are removed, how will the West maintian its influence in Iraq?

Back in December, Seymour Hersh wrote a long article for the New Yorker, claiming that it would be through increased use of airpower.

Hersh is already being proved right - a news report yesterday says that

"daily bombing runs and jet-missile launches have increased by more than 50% in the past five months, compared with the same period last year"

This is something that should concern us. That's not only becase, as the Lancet mortality figures showed in 2004, helicopter gunships leave many civilian casualties. It's also because there is an entire public debate which is missing the point - withdrawing ground troops is not the same as reducing Western influence over Iraq

March 10, 2006

Civil wars and human rights: somebody else's problem

Rumsfeld: the US won't intervene to stop a civil war in Iraq - they're going to leave it to the Iraqi government. This means allowing a civil war to happen - if it comes to civil war all the Iraqi military and police forces will be torn apart into the militias that are really running them. The Iraqi military can't stop a civil war, because it is going to be the battleground.

This isn't in the official PDF of his testimony here, so presumably it was in answer to questions.

What that PDF does include is a particularly blatant statement that Rumsfeld doesn't want to get human rights or democratisation get in the way of what he sees as the US national interest.

It is also important that we not complicate efforts to build useful relationships with nations that can aid in our defense. In the past, there has been a tendency to cut off military-to-military relationships when a particular government did something we did not approve of. This happened some years ago with respect to our relations with both Indonesia and Pakistan -- two of the largest and most important Muslim countries in the world, and today, valuable allies in the War on Terror.

Why did they cut off those relationships? In Pakistan, it was because they were developing nuclear weapons technology - technology which was then transferred to Iran and North Korea. In Indonesia, it was because the government was in the process of killing more than 100,000 people in East Timor.

So Rumsfeld's message is: feel free to build nukes or murder your citizens - the US won't let it stand in the way of military cooperation.

March 8, 2006

Statues defaced in Turkmenistan

You try to protest against one of the nastiest governments in the world, putting your life at incredible risk, trying to slowly build some kind of resistance - and nobody notices, except for the government you're fighting against. That's what's just happened in Turkmenistan, according to the website of an anti-government group (RUS):

On 17 February, somebody removed the hand holding the Ruhnama from a statue of President Niyazov, in 'Turkmenbashi Square' in the city of Mary. Another statue in the region had a bucket of shit thrown on it, and in Ashkhabad somebody has gone as far as scattering leaflets calling for the overthrow of the government

Pretty good going - but costly. The reaction has involved investigations, mass detentions, troops moved into Ashkhabad, and the arrest of two unfortunate souls.

[found via Turkmenistan.neweurasia.net]

March 7, 2006

Movable Type

After far, far too much wrangling, I'm pretty much done with the rejigging of this site. In brief: Wordpress is enticing, but for some reason hellishly buggy with my setup. Movable Type gives me scary-looking licenses to accept at every turn, feels like a lumbering corporate monster, and lacks any kind of grace - but it works. Works, that is, apart from when you want to import old posts from somewhere else. A few comments are gone, but I can live with that.


  1. I'll no longer be updating the old blog on Blogsome. It's a good service, but I needed something that I could integrate with the other bits and pieces here, and that I could customise. Not being able to add in custom themes and plugins was a big downside with Blogsome, even if it made total sense in terms of security and stability
  2. I have started up a little side-blog, so I have somewhere to put things that don't deserve a full post to themselves. When things drop off the front page sidebar here, you'll be able to find them here
  3. Also for things that don't deserve a full post, I've put recent links from [my del.icio.us page](http://del.icio.us/oedipa) on the left. Del.icio.us is something I've found continually useful over the past year, and I find my links there more interesting than most of what I've actually blogged.
  4. I'm going to look for a way to get my rough notes back up here, possibly as a wiki. There's some useful stuff there amidst the dross.
  5. I'll try to resist the tempation to fiddle and tweak, but it is so tempting. I'm sure there'll be trendy things appearing and vanishing from the sidebars every now and again, and perhaps I'll even adjust things so they work better. You never know.

March 5, 2006

The Washington Post has had

The Washington Post has had a clutch of good articles on Iraq recently.

On the aftermath of the destruction of the mosque in Samarra, the US claims that the problems are over. , as do (mostly unnamed) “Iraqi politicians and Western diplomats“. Good news, except that these aren’t really people I trust to tell me how well things are going in Iraq. And 1300 deaths isn’t something you can ignore this easily. At least there is something on the human effects of the curfew

And then there’s a worrying article, titled “An End to the Soft Sell By the British in Basra“. The gist is that over time the British are losing their “softly softly” approach (softness being strictly relative in the first place). But it’s the incidental comments that are disturbing: the murder rate in Basra has doubled since November, the military are leaving their bases less and less, the police forces are little more than a cover for sectarian militias.

Finally, 1/3 of US veterans of Iraq have reported mental problems. That’s a huge number, especially considering the likelihood that a good few will be suffering but not willing to see a psychiatrist.

It’s a hard life being a journalist

A decent enough human-interest piece on the difficulties of being a female journalist in Iran. But it’s spoilt by the introduction:

Women living and working in Iran, particularly those working for the foreign media, are finding all kinds of difficulties strewn in their path, writes Frances Harrison

Is she (or whoever wrote that sentence) really claiming that female journalists have a harder time than other women in Iran? The article itself shows how she managed to use her status as a journalist to get past sexist restrictions, by threatening not to report things she wasn’t allowed to see.

airships over moscow

I want to see a photograph of this - Moscow police are going to start using airships to monitor traffic.

March 4, 2006

Online RPGs affect players’ perceptions

Online RPGs affect players’ perceptions of reality. People who play a MMORPG think that assaults with weapons are more likely than those who don’t play. There’s the start of a discussion on whether the same might apply to positive ‘cultivation effects’ (which is apparently the appropriate jargon). The next question is whether you could rejig the rules of a game in light of this - and whether you should.

March 3, 2006

Looking East

Today I’ve had my head in Russia. From time to time I’ve attempted to find some interesting Russian-language blogs, and I’ve more or less failed. Turns out the reason is that they’re all using Livejournal. Now the question is just how to find the fascinating LJs amongst the teenage breakups and blow-by-blow personal diaries.

Meanwhile, I’ve turned up some odd and interesting Russia-related bits in English. A Soviet cartoon character reinvented as an Olympic mascot Panic-buying of salt, because of fears that Ukraine would stop exporting salt to Russia. Nobody from the Ukrainian government actually said that, or anything close. Just some Russian official worried publicly about the possibility and - Wham! - salt prices go up twenty times.

And how did I not notice that there’s a new BBC documentary series about the role of the oligarchs in Russia?

Edit two minutes later: or rather, there was a documentary about oligarchs. It’s presumably finished in the three months since that article was written. Have to rewatch this film instead (the DVD arrived a couple of weeks ago, as part of my christmas bonus from work, and it’s sitting on the shelf for a rainy day).